You wouldn't think that the longest ovation at the Emmy Awards, an annual celebration of trendiness, would go to three such trend-averse men -- Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, who stood awkwardly on stage, and the late Peter Jennings, whose image appeared behind them on a giant monitor. But the audience rose and clapped in one of the dreary telecast's few moments of genuine electricity, and the tribute made sense coming so soon after the latest reminder of television's power not only to describe the world but to shape it as well.
I'm a print-media guy to the bone, but I have to give props to the way my colleagues in television have covered Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. (Note to Tom and Dan: "Props" is a good thing.) Television rose to become a force for good instead of a force for the evil of happy-faced oversimplification, to which the medium so frequently succumbs.
The gold-star heroes were the men and women who operate the cameras, because they vaulted logistical hurdles that stymied hapless federal, state and local officials and found a way to do what only television can: Show us what's happening as it happens. Anchors and correspondents reported with urgency and emotion, abandoning the safe convention of an "on the other hand" qualifier for every declarative statement. They saw that there was no other hand in this story.
While officials were still issuing reports of minor flooding in New Orleans and patting themselves on the back for dodging a bullet, CNN's Jeanne Meserve made her way to a neighborhood near one of the breached floodwalls and told a completely different story. "This is Armageddon," she reported, struggling to find words for what she was seeing. That was the moment when I realized that this was a major disaster. It wasn't what she said, it was the quaver in her voice as she said it.
There are countless other examples of how television brought home the awful reality of what happened on the Gulf Coast. Even Fox, usually more interested in masticating and spinning the news, went out and did good, original reporting -- and showed passion in recounting how the people of New Orleans and the Gulf were so poorly served by officials at every level.
We tend to look to the past for the golden age of television news -- the reign of Huntley and Brinkley, the heyday of "60 Minutes," the critical coverage of Vietnam, even all the way back to Edward R. Murrow. We rightfully bemoan the fact that the network news divisions are shadows of their former selves, and we note that the audience for the evening news has been withering away.
But considering the dramatic rise of the cable news networks, with their 24-7 resources, and seeing the ability of even the network dinosaurs to mobilize to cover a story such as Katrina, I'm tempted to say that the golden age is now. Or at least that it could be.
The question is where television news goes from here. Will CNN, MSNBC and Fox go back to their incessant breathless reports about MWW? (That's Missing White Women, of course.) Will the legacy networks -- NBC, CBS and ABC -- go back to chasing elusive viewers with evening newscasts that feature soft stories about trends and lifestyles, as opposed to hard news? Or will the Katrina coverage spur television, with its unique power, to use its rediscovered aggressiveness and emotion to cover the other great stories of our time?
The situation in Iraq is so parlous that it would be generating front-page headlines every day if not for Katrina. We now know, based on the amateur hour we saw in New Orleans, that the U.S. government is wholly unprepared for another major terrorist strike. We also know, as if it were a closely held secret all these years, that there are unresolved issues of race and class in this country. We know, as if they had been in hiding all these years, that there are poor people in the United States.
At the moment, with Mayor Ray Nagin telling people to come back to New Orleans and the feds telling them to stay away and another storm threatening the South Florida and Gulf coasts, the whole news business has its hands full. But when things calm down, I hope the people who bring us the news on television recognize what important work they've done over the past few weeks.
I hope they keep it up. If they do, I'll stand to applaud them too.